A pivotal part of public life

Public inquiries have the vital functions of regulation and accountability. Often public inquiries will be charged with the investigation of wide-spread loss of life such as a football or rail disaster or where there has been a shocking crime. However, often a public inquiry will be a last resort after tragic, perhaps avoidable, events have occurred. Inquiries are generally established in order to determine why structures and safeguards failed and so to restore confidence in the state. This is the case with the recent inquiries into Foot and Mouth Disease, the Shipman Inquiry and the Victoria Climbié Inquiry.

The establishment of a public inquiry follows expressions of public concern and a demonstrable need to hold the state to account. Further, public inquiries are held at great cost to the public purse: since 2004 over £300m has been spent on public inquiries. As such, public inquiries also undoubtedly matter to the Government as well as the public. The extent to which the public concern is abated will turn on all aspects of a public inquiry: its establishment; how it is viewed and reported by the press; the public access to the hearing, documents, findings and the report and any recommendations or changes in policy adopted by the Minister.

The public inquiry as a model for parliamentary scrutiny sees no signs of being put to rest. The advent of the Inquiries Act 2005 ensures the inquirys place as a pivotal part of public life in Britain, and a major instrument of accountability.

Current public inquiries

At the moment, there are around ten inquiries established, but yet to end. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, for example, has finished its oral evidence phase, but is still to report.

At various stages in the hearing of their evidence are the three Northern Ireland public inquiries established following the report of Justice Cory into murders in Northern Ireland, namely the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry, the Robert Hamill Inquiry, and the Billy Wright Inquiry. The public inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane recommended by that report has yet to be established.

Other current public inquiries include the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry, the ICL Tech and ICL Plastics Factory Explosion Inquiry, the Shirley McKie Inquiry.

Calls for public inquiries

There are a number of potential public inquiries yet to be established, which have been promised by the Government, debated in Parliament or called for by concerned people.

These include Gordon Browns promise of an inquiry into the Iraq War; David Cameron and others seeking an inquiry into the banking collapse and failures in the financial regulatory system; calls for a public inquiry into the death of a man in the G20 protests and into policing for large scale protests; calls for an inquiry into the illness of war veterans following nuclear testing on Christmas Island and the alleged state collusion in the torture of Binyamin Mohammed.

The number of calls for public inquires far exceed those actually established. The Government has recently rejected repeated calls for a public inquiry into the unexpected deaths of 92 elderly patients at a Hampshire hospital because it was not of "national importance".

Completed public inquiries

Around forty significant public inquiries were established before the advent of the Inquiries Act 2005 under various pieces of legislation or other authority.

Having given the report to the Minister, or ended by some other method, these public inquiries have ended.